Saturday, March 10, 2012

Moneyball: The Beautiful Pain of Baseball Nearing an Early Autumn End

I watched the film Moneyball tonight, and it held me in thrall for the entire nine innings. Some of its wonderful pull is personal: I was once an A's Fan. Living in Oakland, how could I not have been?

I remember the World Series games in the early 1970s, oh, was baseball as beautiful as ballet, as strong as a horse race in slow motion. Such fleet perfection -- Catfish Hunter. Vida Blue. Sal Bando. Ray Fosse, and all the others. Games of effortless glory under a setting sun in the cool autumn skies when the Oakland A's could do no wrong. They owned the world. From a very high seat in the Oakland stadium, courtesy of my employer, I witnessed the glory of championship baseball. My team ruled. My team showed all the other teams how.

A's owner Charlie Finley, a cranky crazy character who turned on baseball after it had turned on him with its gargantuan salaries that favored fat-cat teams in New York and Boston, Chicago and L.A., sold his players off, one by one, and drove the franchise into the ground. But Finely had built a glorious dynasty that took the series three years in a row.

Enter, years later, Billy Bean. I did not know until watching the movie tonight that he had longed to be a baseball player, was, in fact, declared by scouts to have a great future. He had it all, they said. But, like so many promising young players, everything he had did not hold together when he was signed by the Mets. "Many are called, few are chosen," it is said in Moneyball. I had not known about this early life of Billy Bean. The film does a fine job of showing how his failed seasons with the Met would haunt him for the rest of his life. How sad that, for all the publicity and fame surrounding his brand of statistical-based baseball, he has yet to take a team to the World series.

When he entered the Oakland scene, I was a fan; in fact, for the first time in my life, an actual fan who listened to virtually all the games broadcast on the radio, announced by the great late Bill King ("Holy Toledo!"), whilst working on my scale model amusement park. Those games could fill an evening.

I listened to most or all of those record-breaking 20 games in a row that they won, What a thrill.

Out to the Oakland Coliseum I would go a few times a season. Garlic fries and the A's on a sunny summer afternoon, a perfect pleasure. But they never again made it into the world series.

When Bean hired another bench coach to manage the team, instead of taking a chance on first base coach Ron Washington, who wanted the job, I finally had my fill of "Billy Ball," believing the man to be a control freak, unable to delegate authority to and take a chance on a stronger manager. I drifted away. Even still, I much admired Billy for turning down an offer to manage for the Boston Red Sox and receive the highest pay for any manager in the majors. He wanted to stay in Oakland -- unlike so many of his star players, inflating themselves into gladiators, who fled to other teams for obscene millions, turning greed itself into a spectator sport. Barry Zito, a prime example, whored for the Giants across the bay and began a slow pathetic slide into oblivion. This remarkable Bill Bean has a soul.

It's been years since I've been to an A's game, years since I've tuned into the radio. Last season, Ron Washington, who would have loved to manage for the A's, managed a winning Texas team into the world series, and I had a team to root for -- Ron Washington's. And how happy I was for the Washington whom Bean passed over.

Moneyball is a great film. Brad Pitt did a superb job essaying Bean, even if that wasn't the real Billy Bean. It's hard to believe that Bean is so cold and callous. And so temperamental. Maybe so. As for the Art Howe character, he does not come close to my image of the man. I can't fathom him having been so stubbornly insubordinate to Bean. But I only have images from afar. This film is as tough as the cruel heartless world of pro baseball. Another thing that drove me away were the bloated fake steroid players. I have little respect for pro sports of any kind; maybe that's why I appreciate (OK to laugh here) lawn bowling, even as it seems to be dying a slow death right here on the Oakland greens.

There is a scene that called to mind the image of John Ringling North in Europe, standing on the edge of the circus, all alone, watching the action. Bean, who can't bear watching the games up close, at one point goes into the Oakland Coliseum during a key potential victory and stands, like North, all alone at the edge, gazing in mild hope-trepidation.

Moneyball so inspired me, I know I will return sometime this summer to the Coliseum, to get some garlic fries and check out the Oakland A's. I am afraid I will feel a sadness. A sadness for a bygone baseball dream that never came true.

And root for Billy Bean, wherever he is...

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